Venetia Burney  


 (at age 11)

Venetia Katharine Douglas Phair (née Burney) (11 July 1918 – 30 April 2009) was the first person to suggest the name Pluto for the object discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. At the time, she was 11 years old and lived in Oxford, England.

Venetia Burney was born to Rev. Charles Fox Burney, Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford, and his wife Ethel Wordsworth Madan. She was the granddaughter of Falconer Madan (1851–1935), Librarian of the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford. Falconer's brother Henry Madan (1838–1901), Science Master of Eton, had in 1878 suggested the names Phobos and Deimos for the moons of Mars.

On the morning of 14 March 1930, Falconer Madan read the story of the new planet's discovery in The Times, and mentioned it to his granddaughter Venetia who was sitting down to breakfast in the dining room of the house in north Oxford. As a young girl, she was keen in Greek and Roman myths and legends at the time, and suggested the name Pluto — the Roman God of the Underworld who was able to make himself invisible.

In the documentary about Venetia’s story, entitled Naming Pluto, Venetia recalls the moment she came up with the name. “It was about 8 o’clock and I was having breakfast with my mother and my grandfather and my grandfather as usual opened the paper, the Times and in it he read that a new planet had been discovered. He wondered what it should be called. We all wondered. And then I said, “Why not call it Pluto”. And the whole thing stemmed from that.”

But it was Venetia’s reasoning that made her suggestion far stronger than those sent to Flagstaff, Arizona, from all corners of the world. Venetia was interested in classical mythology as well as astronomy and considered the name, that of the Roman god of the Underworld, appropriate for such a presumably dark and cold world. 

Falconer Madan forwarded the suggestion to astronomer Herbert Hall Turner, who cabled his American colleagues at Lowell Observatory. Tombaugh liked the proposal because it started with the initials of Percival Lowell who had predicted the existence of Pluto. On 1 May 1930, the name Pluto was formally adopted for this new celestial body.  Burney was educated at Downe House School in Berkshire and Newnham College, Cambridge, where she studied mathematics. After graduation she became a chartered accountant. Later she became a teacher of economics and mathematics at girls’ schools in southwest London. In 1947 she married Edward Maxwell Phair. Her husband, a classicist, later became housemaster and head of English at Epsom College.

Only a few months before the reclassification of Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet, with the debate going on about the issue, she said in an interview that “At my age, I've been largely indifferent to [the debate]; though I suppose I would prefer it to remain a planet.”

Venetia died peacefully on 30th April 2009 in Banstead, United Kingdom.